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What We Have Become 

On Nov. 18, I was in the Philadelphia airport, preparing to return to Colorado after an academic conference at Yale University. An announcement came over the loudspeaker. "The computer has randomly selected passengers for extra security checks, so be prepared to step out of line for a random security check."

I wondered whether my ticket would be randomly selected. As more and more passengers joined the separate line, I grew uneasy. Everyone in the "random extra security check" line had dark skin. Everyone boarding the plane had light skin. I pointed out to those around me that the extra security check didn't look very random. Nobody responded. There was an increasingly hushed and solemn feeling in the air, which got the social psychologist in me agitated. I know about "bystander apathy" and I get nervous when it's happening around me.

As I handed my boarding pass to the flight representative, I said, "That doesn't look random to me" and pointed to the line of people. An African-American woman in that other line heard me and looked up with eyes that spoke volumes of the indignity of her situation. The others in that line kept their eyes down, staring at the floor.

The attendant said, "The company keeps assuring us that it is random, but it doesn't look like it is to me either."

"It looks like profiling," I said.

"Yes, it does" was his reply.

I grew increasingly agitated as I approached the airplane and entered it, trying desperately to get those around me to join me in expressing the injustice of the other passengers' treatment. Still, everyone remained quiet, some staring openly at me.

Two flight attendants heard me continuing to complain. One glared menacingly at me and said, "What did you say?"

"I am disturbed by what looked like racial profiling going on out there for the extra security check," I said.

"Listen, ma'am," she spat between clenched teeth. "Would you rather be safe or sorry?"

I couldn't believe my ears. "If those are the only options," I said, "then 'sorry'." I continued on to my seat, my thoughts racing.

And then it seemed my world turned upside down. One of the flight attendants came marching down the aisle and pointed to me in my window seat and said, "Ma'am. I need you to come with me." I thought for sure I was being kicked off the flight.

She brought me back out into the jetway. "This isn't the country it used to be," she insisted. "The fact is, there are some people we need to be more wary of now."

"Then do not call the security check 'random,'" I said.

"People don't have the right to say anything they want to anymore!" she continued. "People have been pulled off planes for joking about weapons."

"I was not joking about weapons!" I yelled. "I have a right to point out the hypocrisy of calling what was happening 'random.'"

We stared at one another. I tried to calm down, sobered by the shocking possibility that I was jeopardizing my chance to get home to my daughters and husband. I took a deep breath. "May I go back to my seat now?" I asked.

"Yes," she replied.

I had a long flight back home to Colorado, looking out the window at the amber waves of grain below me, trying to make sense of what had happened. I realized that the flight attendant was scared. She was likely haunted by images of the unspeakable ordeal those other flight attendants had gone through on the hijacked flights of Sept. 11. I realized we're all scared -- but not of the same things.

I've had a good long time to think through my ordeal of Nov. 18, and have come to a few conclusions. The first is the shameful recognition that those who argue the loudest that, in this time of crisis, "we will have to give up some of our basic rights" are precisely those who will likely not be giving up any rights. They are not being asked to participate in extra security checks. They are not having their phones and computers tapped. They are not facing arrests with no charges, or military tribunals.

The second is that the flight attendant was right. This isn't the country it used to be. And I'm afraid of what it's becoming. That flight taught me exactly what to be afraid of. Not terrorists. But what terrorism has begotten: the loss of human rights and dignity for many among us, and perhaps even more chilling, the quiet acceptance and lack of collective outrage over that loss.

Tomi-Ann Roberts is a professor of psychology at Colorado College.

  • On Nov. 18, I realized were all scared but not of the same things.

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